The N.J. Law Journal reports:
Three years ago, Oregon plaintiffs’ lawyer Susan Saladoff dropped her legal career and started work on what has become “Hot Coffee,” a pro-plaintiff documentary that’s a call to arms over tort law, jury awards and judicial elections. The film has been making the rounds at festivals nationwide and is set for its public debut on HBO today.
“Hot Coffee” is named for the high profile 1994 case of an elderly New Mexico woman, Stella Liebeck, who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself and sued. Comedians, journalists and politicians mocked her case, adding momentum to the effort to cap damage awards. The film is an aggressive attempt to channel the public sympathy back to plaintiffs, showing in graphic detail Liebeck’s third-degree burns that required hospitalization and skin grafts
The Story behind the making of “Hot Coffee”
To Saladoff, who was making her first real film, “Hot Coffee” serves up long-overdue balance to a national debate.
“I wanted to change the conversation,” Saladoff said. “The other side of this issue has monopolized the conversation because of the amount of money they have.”
The film came about after a midlife career change. Saladoff, 52, had a long career in plaintiffs’ work, starting as a clerk at the public interest firm Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. She learned trial work at what’s now Shadoan Michael & Wells in Rockville, Md., before striking out on her own in medical malpractice cases. Representing injured patients made her feel like a champion, she said, and she served a turn as president of a foundation affiliated with the trial-lawyer firm at which she initially clerked.
That didn’t last. “After 25 years, the truth is you get sort of worn down,” she said. The defendants would have more resources, juries became less sympathetic and winning became harder. “It would get me angry that I couldn’t tell my clients that I could get them justice. They’d walk in the door, and I’d say, ‘The system is stacked against you,’” she said.
The Anti-Lawsuit Point of View
Business groups are beginning to denounce the film. A spokesman for the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform said it’s as fanciful as the Flat Earth Society, while Victor Schwartz, who appears in the film as general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, said he regrets participating in what he calls “the most effective piece of propaganda” that trial lawyers have ever put out.
In a theater near you…
During the next month, “Hot Coffee” is scheduled to run at least 11 times on HBO or HBO2, and Saladoff said she’s in the process of bringing it to as many as 30 film festivals. This month, it won a top prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, as the jury said it “makes dry legal boilerplate spring to life.” Stops at law schools are in the works, and Saladoff said a theatrical release is planned for the fall, targeted at small, art-house theaters.
Here’s a glimpse of “Hot Coffee”